In the ‘before’ times, many of us watched Paris Couture Week from afar, admiring Celine Dion’s outrageous street style and the no-holds-barred catwalk spectacles from French fashion houses including Christian Dior, Valentino and Chanel. In the pandemic era, however, fashion week has moved online, which means we all get a front-row seat, even if it’s only crouched over our laptops.
It is, understandably, a bit of a comedown: I’m just sitting at my desk — no make-up, no bra — compared to my experience at the London shows, trying not to sweat through my dress as I push through the street-style circus outside some crumbling theatre or warehouse space in the city. There’s no pre-show chatter, no sitting around on an uncomfortable bench for a show that’s 45 minutes late, no celebrity spotting and, most significantly, no rush at seeing the first model emerge on the catwalk. Instead, it mostly takes place on YouTube, but at least all the shows start on time.
The digital shift began last month, when Chanel opted to unveil its resort collection in a video after the planned extravaganza in Capri was called off. The first digital show was a flop: models posed against the backdrop of a Mediterranean seascape in what felt more like a glorified advertising campaign than a glimpse into the future of fashion. The faded denim Bermuda shorts, belly chains and crop tops were designed in May, yet the collection felt totally out of step with the world in which it was created and presented. The whole thing left fashion fans wondering why Chanel had bothered in the first place, when many of its peers were skipping the season.
There were higher hopes for London Fashion Week’s digital debut: a gender-neutral online platform promising short films, designer interviews, photo galleries, podcasts and playlists. In the end, unfortunately, a lot of it felt like filler. Much of the content was assembled on a short deadline, and with supply chains disrupted and teams working remotely, few designers had new collections to show. Browsing the website, I thought it resembled an online conference, where all of the “shows” ended with my YouTube suggestions for workout videos or a Zoom reunion with the Lord of the Rings cast — which dimmed the afterglow considerably.
Pre-recorded videos were drained of the excitement and immediacy I get when gathered with the rest of the audience, waiting for a show to begin. Some of them reinforced that sense of absence, such as Nicholas Daley’s footage from his bustling January show. And though it was open to all, there were often less than 200 people watching when I tuned in live. The Business of Fashion reported that web coverage and social media engagement plunged 55pc compared to the January edition, according to data consultancy Launchmetrics.
Big names like Burberry and Victoria Beckham sat it out, which brought greater visibility to smaller brands, including Dublin designer Robyn Lynch, who showcased a collection of repurposed Rapha cycling garments, soundtracked by a Leo Varadkar speech.
The British Fashion Council noted that it was an experiment, not a replacement for physical events, but it ultimately felt rather lifeless, and if anything, it confirmed to me the viability of the traditional model. There were some upsides: as well as being more democratic, it eliminated the guest travel that has contributed to fashion week’s massive carbon footprint. And in providing the space to share a sort of interactive mood board, it allowed brands to bring viewers into their world, giving more insight into the designer than their designs.
One creative who managed a clever workaround was JW Anderson, blending digital and tactile by presenting his menswear and resort collections last week with a “show in a box”. The Derry-born designer proposed patchwork jackets, easy trousers and long, languid dresses that were photographed on mannequins wearing masks, copies of which were enclosed with a piece of string to try at home (a smart, Instagram-friendly extra), along with pressed flowers, printed notecards and handmade nails to hang up a piece of gingham cloth that reads, “In a time of uneven connections, I thought the show should come to you.” I enjoyed watching the accompanying video of Anderson unpacking and explaining the contents in his thoughtful, unhurried way — a far cry from the typical post-show backstage scrum.
The digital fashion week experiment continues this week with the Paris couture presentations. The event launched on Monday with a video by Schiaparelli, featuring artistic director Daniel Roseberry sketching his “imaginary collection” on a Manhattan park bench. The drawings were wondrously evocative: a Schiaparelli-pink column dress, draped suiting cinched with a padlock, a jacket with impossibly voluminous leg-of-mutton sleeves all jumped off the page. It made me long to see the finished pieces, which the brand plans to do before Christmas.
The rest of the day’s shows similarly emphasised the process of making, so central to couture, such as Ralph & Russo, with lingering close-ups on the sketching, hand-sewing, delicate embroidery and crystal embellishment before showing the pieces modelled on an avatar named Hauli, who was digitally transplanted to the Seven Wonders of the World, the inspiration for the collection. The shots hammered home for me the emotionless quality of these digital events. One of the joys of a fashion show is seeing how the clothes move, something you can’t recreate with an avatar and stock images of the Taj Mahal.
The most striking presentation was Dior’s dreamlike 15-minute film by Italian director Matteo Garrone, which drew on Greek mythology with a cast of mermaids, nymphs and fauns. The famed petite mains at Dior’s ateliers created doll-sized looks, which were packed in a trunk and carried through an enchanted forest by impeccably-dressed bellhops, in a nod to the post-WWII Theatre de la Mode.
It exemplifies how digital storytelling can afford designers greater versatility than the old-fashioned catwalk and show notes; plus, unlike a breathless 10-minute catwalk show, you can go back and take another look. Yet beyond the fantastical film-making, the designs fell flat. There was nothing new here, and the escapism rang hollow, due to the repetitiveness of the clothes and the inexcusable whiteness of the casting.
Yesterday opened with Chanel, which improved on its lacklustre resort offering with a maximalist, 18th century-meets-1980s collection of glittering tweed tunics with trousers, midnight blue ballgowns with Marie Antoinette shoes, and a beautiful bridal finale decorated with sparkling brooches. The photos were great but the 80-second video, of two models throwing shapes in front of a white backdrop, seemed like an afterthought.
Modern fashion shows are often like theatre, and the digital iteration reminded me of watching a play in the cinema. Sitting in the stalls, the action feels fresh and alive. Watching a broadcast, you don’t get that communal thrill, the pure concentration on what’s unfolding, the sense of the performers’ physical presence. At a good show (in fashion or theatre), the energy is mesmerising, and there’s so many details to take in, from the styling to the music to the audience reaction. On screen, the camera simply tells me what to see and when to see it.
Today is the final day of the Paris edition, featuring Maison Margiela, Viktor & Rolf and Valentino, all of whom can be relied upon for spectacular innovation even in the most normal of times. Next week will see Milan’s digital effort, with shows by Prada and Gucci.
For others, though, online showcases are no match for the real deal, and many brands are waiting to resume in-person events. The past few weeks have shown that there is potential in digital storytelling to share their vision with a broader audience. But fashion is emotional — it’s supposed to make you feel something, and the industry still has a ways to go in figuring out how to foster that connection through a screen.